Promoting civil behavior in children
“We’d love to have you visit us but whatever you do don’t bring any preschoolers with you,” a grandfather remarked at a dinner party one evening.
It seems he had been visited by his children and grandchildren and was still reeling from the event. “They never listened, didn’t want to do anything, were picky about the food and got into arguments about toys,” he continued. “Kids today are like that.”
How agonizing it must be for loving parents, so invested in their children’s well being to feel as though friends or relatives are not enthusiastic about an upcoming visit.
How very puzzling and sad it must be for a preschool child to get the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) message that he is a nuisance or, heaven forbid, not liked very much.
So what is causing the grandparent mentioned above to express such negative reactions? What is missing in the wealth of rich opportunities we are now able to provide our children. How can we include thoughtfulness about and respect for others? Where can we find the balance between encouraging our children to become confident and assertive and, at the same time, sensitive and respectful of others?
Parents today are very aware of children’s needs and often bend over backwards to understand and pay attention to them. This generation of parents sacrifices itself to be sure children have opportunities for many and varied experiences.
Participation in their children’s activities is taken for granted and children are always included in family events. The idea that children should be seen and not heard has been dispatched to the trash bin of yesteryear’s unenlightened parenting.
However, while working hard to make the world a child-friendly place we have often allowed it to become child dominated.
Good behavior is learned behavior
We all know that one learns to love by being loved. It could also be said that a child learns respect and appreciation for others by having those responsible for him appreciate and respect him. Not only does he absorb these characteristics from the behavior of those around him but also through the coaching he experiences from toddlerhood on through preschool.
But how then, do we model appreciation and respect and what are some of the ways we can coach our toddlers and preschoolers to be civil? How can we prepare them to behave in age appropriate ways outside the home and when do we begin?
An example of modeling might be this story of a young mother visiting friends. As lunch was put on the table, two and a half year old Sarah loudly exclaimed, “I don’t like chunky peanut butter. I only like creamy peanut butter!”
To some, such assertiveness seems rude. To others, the assertiveness is admirable. How wonderful if the mother can quietly coach Sarah by gently saying, “Mrs. Smith made these sandwiches especially for this lunch. Could you try one?”
Should Sarah object, a glass of milk will be just fine. A missed lunch won’t harm her and she can be reassured they will have a little lunch when they are back home. Here, Sarah can observe her mother’s behavior, hear her words and the tone she uses, feel her respect for their hostess and at the same time experience Mom’s acknowledgement that she prefers smooth peanut butter to chunky.
Preparation for difficult situations
Since young children change significantly as they grow from toddlers to preschoolers we can think about the challenge of sharing and the importance of preparation. We can also consider what words and actions might avoid unnecessary confrontations. Preparation doesn’t necessarily hold up with toddlers because when the “chips are down” and a friend grabs his favorite toy he will react.
But this shouldn’t discourage us from saying a few preparatory words. They might go something like this, “Jason is coming. He likes trucks. Let’s make sure there are trucks to play with.”
Now, when the upset occurs, and it will, we can move in calmly, acknowledge that they both like trucks and then distract them with things to put in the trucks or with boxes into which they can park them. This is respectful of the fact they are only 2 years old.
Since our toddler is egocentric and able to think of things only from his own point of view, the abstract idea that Jason has feelings is not yet within his understanding. Our approach to the situation gives a clear message of respect and benevolence. He is absorbing our demeanor, and this is the beginning of helping him think of others.
As our toddler gets older and he can now keep in his head other times when he has played with his friend Jason, we can begin to help him share.
For starters we can prepare our 3- or 4-year-old for an upcoming visit and help him think ahead. Recognizing his attachment to certain toys and respecting that, we might say, “Jason and his Mom are coming over this afternoon. I know it’s sometimes hard for you to let him play with some of your toys. Last time he really wanted to play with your dump truck. Can you let him play this time or should we put it away?”
This is not only knowing about your child and his developmental level but respects how attached he is to his special toys. It is also giving him some control over what will happen.
Important also is how we listen to our children if we expect them to listen to and respect us.
One of the examples of how we might model expected behaviors might be the way in which we use the phone. We might forego answering our phones if our child is in the middle of a serious conversation with us. Calls can be returned later but concentrating on our child now gives him the message that we think what he’s saying is important. Also, answering our phones when we are on the phone with someone else should be avoided. Children watch.
Another opportunity is when we are in a group of guests and our young children burst into the room in the full bloom of an argument demanding that it be settled. It helps everyone to quietly excuse ourselves and find a private place to talk, rather than embarrassing everyone by flooding the room with anger and demeaning words.
It is respectful of the guests and of the children. It models for the children how and when to talk about conflicts and where to do it in the most appropriate ways. We can gently coach children not to interrupt or at least to say, “Excuse me,” when something can’t wait. Gradually, it is our hope that the kids will learn to wait when we are in conversations with other adults just as we, in turn, will wait until after their friends have left to discuss potentially embarrassing issues with them.
All this is not easy given the current themes on TV, the computer games and in the movies where being assertive, interrupting one another and rudeness appear acceptable.
Often the popular movies include kids with quick, smart-sounding back-talk, which is not limited to their peers but includes adults. As with other themes in movies and on TV, we can watch with our young children and point out that what is done in the movies isn’t always the kind of thing that shows respect and thoughtfulness of others. We can talk about how we might all feel if someone talked to us in those words.
If we begin the process of coaching our children in toddlerhood perhaps, in adulthood they might be able to listen when people are talking before talking themselves. Perhaps they will begin to be more aware of the needs of the people around them.
Perhaps then grandfather will say, “Do come visit, and be sure you bring your wonderful preschoolers with you.” And perhaps these children will contribute to a more civil society as they grow.